Square Enix has been on a roll as of late in churning out mobile ports of popular game franchises (Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest) in the midst of several lack-luster original mobile games such as the Chaos Rings franchise. Indeed Square still has ways to go before lining itself up with mobile games publishing giants in Japan like Gung-Ho, Gumi, Gree, and the like.
Enter the company’s latest original entry into the free-to-play mobile gaming platform: Heavenstrike Rivals ( released globally in March 2015) is a turn-based strategy game under the art direction of Ryoma Ito (FF Tactics Advance) and the musical scoring of Ryo Yamazaki (FF: Crystal Chronicles). The game is played on a 3 x 7 (Height x Width) board where two players take turns in placing units with the ultimate goal of dealing enough damage to take down the opposing team’s captain. As simple as it sounds, things get complex when you factor in the different unit classes, unit races, levels, and ranks (upgraded units).
Captains are not only an avatar representation of you in the game, they can also equip a skill ranging from direct damage, buffs, or healing. These are charged after usage by turn (6-9 turns) If used strategically, can instantly turn the tide of battle. If anything, Heavenstrike Rivals plays more like a collectible card game (CCG) placed on a grid board than your typical square grid strategy game like FF Tactics and similar games. Heavenstrike Rivals features six (6) unit classes and four (4) unit races: Humans, Ogurs, Felyns, and Lambkin. Each class has an inherent skill and an extra ability based on the unit type and its rarity. Unit class and race are also the basis for buff and debuff skills.
Fighters (movement range 2) normally have high HP and moderate amount of ATK. Their class skill is the ability gain 1 ATK every time they hit an opposing unit or the opposing captain. The longer they stay alive in combat, the higher their ATK will be.
Defenders (movement range 2) have the highest base HP in the game and have the ability to taunt opposing units to prevent them from changing lanes. This forces attacking units to deal with the defender and prevents them from attacking your other units or your captain.
Gunners (movement range 1) are indirect damage units capable of hitting all targets 3 spaces in front of them. Best used against enemy formations who run in a straight line.
Scouts (movement range 3) are the fastest units in the game who are able to attack opposing captains by their second turn. They have the lowest HP among all units but are offset with extremely powerful damage dealing capabilities through their double strike skill (attacks twice per round).
Mages (movement range 1) attacks have splash damage. They deal half the amount of their base ATK to all adjacent units which is ideal for clearing out crowds of enemy units should they happen to be bunched up. These units can attack units or captains 3 spaces in front of them.
Priests (movement range 1) heal the unit with the lowest HP in the board once per turn. They are support units with low ATK and moderate HP to keep your attacking units in combat alive for as long as possible. They can attack units and captains two spaces in front of them.
Each unit class has either an ETB (enter the battlefield) effect or activated ability (by chance) as a skill which varies per unit. Tthe higher the rarity, the more powerful the effect. These abilities on top of the class based ones create a deep strategic environment where timing and synergy of your units with each other is key to controlling battles. This system in my opinion is what really got Heavenstrike Rivals going for me. Players Heavenstrike Rivals start out with two (2) mana and can accumulate a maximum of ten (10) mana after the first five (5) turns in combat. Units have varied casting costs from 2 to 4 mana. A player can have a total of ten (10) mana worth of units at any given time so as much as timing is the key to beating your opponents, you must also keep track of how much resources you will spend to field your units. There are cases when you max out your mana to field units and your opponent can isolate them in one side of the battlefield and create an opening for them to attack your captain with impunity. In this case, you could potentially lose the battle without any way of turning the game around.
New units can be earned through completing story missions, normal missions, daily missions, and special missions. But the quickest way to earn powerful new units is through recruitment which requires cores (the game’s cash currency). Cores can be farmed from a daily quest (1-3 cores per day) and completing story quests. As a starting player, you can accumulate over one hundred (100) cores by playing the daily core quest and completing all story missions. It takes five (5) core to recruit one 3-5 star unit or 45 core to recruit 10 3-5 star units. Statistically speaking, you will at least gain two (2) 4 star units which are more then enough to help you plow through story missions. As such, you cannot escape the fact that Heavenstrike Rivals adheres to common standards in Japanese mobile games which easily translates to spend money to recruit better units. But like most of these types of games, there are system events which will give you better incentives for recruiting at those times. You can simply save up your core for 10 recruits and consume them during these system events. All 2-5 star units can be upgraded to increase their stats and effect abilities through unit promotion and maxing out their levels. Legendary units (5-star) when promoted will become 6-star or basically “broken” units.
Units with skills (outside class skills) can level-up their skills up to 4 times (to level 5). One skill level can be gained through promoting the unit to its final form, the rest leaves little to be desired. The only other way to increase skill level is to train units with the exact same unit. In other words, you need at least 4 of one specific unit to max out their skills and based on my experience, maxing skills out matters. Fortunately, most functional units can be farmed from story missions, daily missions, and special missions. Units you can farm for are actually just as important as legendary units you can gain through recruitment.
This part will actually need some time and effort through gaining unit experience and acquiring promotion items farmed through daily quests. Upgrading units will certainly help you plow through story missions but these are really meant for you to keep up with the weekly PVP leagues, one of the biggest endgame features of Heavenstrike Rivals. If you get down to it, the AI of Heavenstrike Rivals does some pretty stupid moves (occupy one lane and keep staying there regardless of battlefield conditions) in missions as well as with your squad should you chose to use the game’s auto-play feature so the best place to get your competitive gaming fix is in the weekly PVP league. Newbies will probably fall to the bottom of the ladder due to the lack of 4-6 star units and completely upgraded regular units. The difference is overwhelming and it might discourage you granted that top players receive high tier units as rewards, as such is how mobile games operate. Game balance is skewed towards paying and long time users. Catching up to them is a matter of leveling up relevant and powerful low cost/lower rarity units (most of which can be acquired or farmed in daily and weekly missions) to their full potential. Outside of regular daily missions and recruitment using cores, Heavenstrike Rivals features weekly missions where you can farm powerful super rare units (4 star).
I find that these units are commonly used in PVP and have great utility in PVE missions so they are must-farm units. For new players, you could miss out on the previous characters, but it is up to Square Enix to ensure that old and new player alike will be able to enjoy these farmable characters eventually. There currently are sixty-two (62) story missions for the first chapter of Heavenstrike Rivals each with increasing levels of difficulty. There is still no word on when the next chapter is set to be implemented but as most story-driven games, chapters are released in a span of more than 1 month intervals. The story of the game isn’t exactly compelling or poor, I just find it a necessity for the flavor of the game. I found that the AI is able to circumvent regular squad building rules such as (2 per unit type restrictions imposed on players) as compensation for rather shifty game-play logic. After completing the story missions, you will gain access to a high stamina and high difficulty cost dungeon which randomly rewards you with high EXP and gold along with unit EXP items, new units, and even cores.
As a relatively heavy user, I haven’t spent any money on buying cores but I have assembled a pretty strong line-up of units, the difference is my units haven’t reached maximum promotion so the odds against me when faced off with higher level squads but I will be able to catch up in due time. The PVP metagame in Heavenstrike Rivals can change on the fly like with its latest PVP league that just concluded this week which banned the usage of the Defender unit class. This modification strongly reinforced fast moving units like Scouts being able to get in range with your opponent’s captain easily since there are no enemy units which can taunt your offensive units to delay imminent attacks. With the addition of these type of PVP events, things certainly are about to get more interesting.
The visuals of Heavenstrike Rivals are vibrant and well animated but they seem to be quite heavy on resources for a mobile game. You need Android 4.1 and up or iOS 7.0 for Apple devices as a minimum requirement so older and weaker devices will not be able run the game at all. Each unit type per race have a template form factor but their costumes and design vary widely. You can clearly see a great degree of character design put into each unit type and this definitely puts extra value into collecting units. The music in Heavenstrike Rivals utilizes an orchestral ensemble and produced some of the best mobile game music I’ve heard but the voices of characters are pretty generic and bland.
I am hooked Heavenstrike Rivals but it does demand a certain level of dedication and play frequency which I am unable or unwilling to fulfill most of the time, hence losing some opportunity to acquire the maximum attainable daily grind benefits. However, it isn’t that much of a turn-off as I do enjoy the PVP content even if I am frequently mismatched with extremely powerful squads. The next step for furthering game balancing could be setting squad cost requirements based on unit rarity and maximum level to prevent paying users to simply field a team with top units and maxing out their stats to dominate PVP. The game at its core is a strategy game after all. It is a pity that this game found its way to the mobile platform, I would pay for a retail version of the game (minus the micro-transactions).
Other things I would like to see in future versions of Heavenstrike Rivals: friends lists, PVP directly with people in your friends lists (playtesting), and daily Login bonuses. Come on, every other game in the same genre does it, why not here?